state of the union

Teachers unions wield much power in elections but can still lose

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten urges Cincinnati teachers to knock on doors and phone bank on President Obama’s behalf. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten urges Cincinnati teachers to knock on doors and phone bank on President Obama’s behalf. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

Early on in George Latimer’s 2012 race for the open New York Senate District 37 seat, the momentum was swinging in his opponent’s favor. Republican candidate Bob Cohen, a wealthy real estate developer, had a reputation as an aggressive campaigner who wasn’t afraid to spend money. Two years earlier, he had nearly unseated the incumbent who was now stepping down.

“There was a substantial concern that Bob’s money could win this,” said Victor Mallison, who ran Latimer’s campaign.

But the Westchester race had piqued the interest of the United Federation of Teachers and the New York State United Teachers, who saw a unique opportunity for Democrats to take over the Senate for just the third time since World War II. Democrats already controlled the Assembly, and controlling both houses of the legislature would give the party and its union allies the power to advance their agendas with little opposition.

The unions spent big on the Latimer-Cohen race and four other contests they targeted as winnable. Through television and radio advertising, mailers, door-to-door canvassing, and phone banking, the union’s ability to mobilize voters impressed even its opponents.

“One thing you can be sure of is when the teachers unions engages in a race, they do it very thoroughly,” said William O’Reilly, a Republican consultant who worked on Cohen’s campaign. “And I mean that as a compliment.”

As a local Assemblyman representing an area that already leaned Democratic, Latimer had what many believed was an inherent advantage. But people who worked on his campaign said support from teachers helped propel him to victory. While he began the race with only a slim lead, on Election Day he won soundly, 54 percent to 45 percent.

The unions weren’t able to sway all of the races they got involved in. Two of the five candidates whose campaigns they helped support lost. And a power-sharing deal between Republicans and five breakaway Democrats soon after the election meant that the Democratic Party failed to seize control of the Senate.

Still, the victories are evidence of the powerful political organizing machines that teachers unions across the country — and especially in New York — can become during elections. During election cycles they deploy resources and teacher volunteers to organize aggressively around candidates who they believe are most closely aligned on labor-friendly education policies.

Teachers unions back many candidates, including some who don’t agree with them on every education issue. For instance, NYSUT last year endorsed Jeff Klein, who voted against a bill that required public employees to contribute more toward their pensions — even though he supported increasing the number of charter schools and ending seniority-based layoffs. But often they also lend their might to races where extra effort could tip the balance of power in favor of the Democratic candidate, even when education issues are not at the fore.

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Unions have traditionally been big donors in elections, giving directly to candidates or groups. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association combined gave more than $59.3 million in political contributions between 1989 and 2010, 95 percent of which went to Democrats. In 2012, the NEA donated more than $13 million, putting it second in overall organization spending to the United Auto Workers at $14 million. The AFT contributed nearly $5.9 million.

The political landscape evolved with the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which held that political expenditures by unions and corporations were a form of free speech and, as such, could not be restricted. Although limits on how much any person or group can give to an individual candidate remain, no ceiling is placed on “independent expenditures.”

That means the unions find their potential power both expanded and threatened. Although they can spend unrestricted amounts of money, so can many who oppose them.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he did not expect that the union would be able to match the amount spent by the right in any of the races the union entered in 2012. Cohen’s campaign alone outspent Latimer’s $1.4 million to $700,000. Instead, he said, it came down to tactics.

“The strategy on the other side is to put up yard signs and then just [blanket the area] with ads,” Mulgrew said. “Our strategy is always work with the people on the grassroots piece first.” The UFT prefers to wait until the final two weeks of the campaign to unleash the “major money,” he said.

In all, NYSUT spent $4.5 million in the 2012 elections on things like polling, advertisements, and direct contributions to candidates. The UFT contributed to that total, Mulgrew said.

In addition to Latimer’s victory, the unions helped Democrat Ted O’Brien win a newly opened Senate seat in Rochester and the UFT helped reelect state Sen. Joseph Addabo (D.) in Queens. The unions were also successful in helping to oust longtime Republican incumbent Steve Saland. Despite representing the Hudson Valley, Saland traveled to New York City in May 2012 to promote a bill he sponsored that would let school districts fire teachers who had inappropriate sexual contact with students. The union argued that the proposed legislation was an attack on due process rights. “To us, that was personal,” Mulgrew said. (Saland’s support of gay marriage rights hurt him with conservatives, which also might have cost him at the ballots.)

The unions weren’t successful in every case, however. Democrats Justin Wagner and Chris Eachus, also backed by the unions, both lost.

Other education advocacy groups critical of the unions have tried to back their own candidates, with less success. In 2010, Democrats for Education Reform supported the legislative races of two incumbents who supported raising the charter school cap, and a Harlem political consultant to challenge Bill Perkins, a longtime Harlem senator who had fiercely opposed the growth of charter schools earlier that year. The lone candidate to win was Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Assemblyman who had served for nearly 20 years.

In all the races, the UFT and NYSUT engaged with local groups, including local teachers unions, to organize grassroots efforts to support their Democratic candidates, Mulgrew said. They also sent out mailers and developed television spots. The unions put out ads calling Cohen a slumlord, which he denied and countered with ads of testimonies from tenants, and attacked Republican Sean Hanna’s record in the State Assembly, calling him “Wrong for Rochester.”

While the UFT and NYSUT were throwing their independent support behind Latimer, Cohen got help from a Virginia-based group called Common Sense Principles that sent out mailers in support of Republican candidates around the state. Mallison, who is now Latimer’s chief of staff, said he counted about a dozen mailers sent out by the organizations in support of Cohen.

Since Latimer’s campaign was legally barred from collaborating with the unions, Mallison rarely interacted with their officials. But reflecting on the race this month, he said the unions’ contributions were effective.

“The work that they did was exceptional, and I think it helped us by augmenting our efforts that we already had,” he said.

Mulgrew said he sees the work the union does as offsetting such outsiders who are “trying to buy the political process.”

He wouldn’t comment on how big of a player the union is in state elections. “That’s for others to say,” he said. “I’ve heard from many people, ‘You were the only ones who said you could go out and do certain things and went out and did it.’”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

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